Sterlina Petalo, a blonde, blue-eyed girl living in Maastricht, Netherlands, was, according to her mother, a typical "bubbly" 18 year-old before she converted to Islam and adopted the name "Aicha" in the summer of 2013.
Petalo was a practicing Catholic before her conversion to Islam, her mother, Monique Verbert, said in an interview with Dutch television in September, adding that at first her daughter brought home a Bible and then brought home a Qur'an.
"Suddenly she was standing in front of me in a niqab — that was a shock," Verbert said. "I thought, Girl, what are you doing? That went too far for me."
In November 2013, Petalo created a new Facebook page to reflect her growing religious fervor, changing her display name from her nickname of "Lina Lina" to "Sinbad Hoofd Callemijn."
In a post from Dec. 3, 2013, Petalo explained why she had chosen to wear the niqab — a conservative form of hijab that only shows a woman's eyes — despite objections from her parents.
"Assalamu alaikoum oughty [sister]. You wear [the hijab] for your creator and not because it makes you beautiful or ugly. I wear the niqab myself and receive only judgment, even from my parents, but Alhamdulillah [thank God] it strengthens my Iman [faith]. You wear your hijab for one reason and that is to please the creator and not for your fellow man."
Petalo first saw Omar "Israfil" Yilmaz when she watched an interview of him online. According to her mother, Petalo was "deeply impressed" with the self-described "part-time aid worker, trainer, and fighter."
Yilmaz, a Dutch-Turkish jihadist known as "chechclear" on social media, is well known for his willingness to interact with Western media and for posting lots of photos of cats and daily life in Syria.
Verbert said that her daughter saw Yilmaz, who served in the Dutch and Turkish militaries before moving to Syria, as a handsome Robin Hood-type figure.
Verbert told Dutch television that her daughter, whom she described as a "very sweet, sensitive girl," thought Yilmaz was "a nice man" who was fighting against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. "She said again and again: 'Mom, look at that guy — isn't it good what he does?'"
Petalo reached out to Yilmaz over social media and soon the two were chatting "for hours" online. Yilmaz knew Petalo as "Aicha," the Arabic name the teen adopted after she converted to Islam.
Authorities confiscated Petalo's passport after a friend reported that she was a flight risk, but in early February, she used her ID card to travel by rail from the Netherlands to Turkey. She then crossed the border into Syria.
Even though they had communicated constantly online, Yilmaz said that Petalo originally planned to marry another jihadi from the Caucasus. But when he was killed, the 18 year-old married Yilmaz instead.
On Feb. 28, Yilmaz posted a quotation about marriage on his Tumblr page — a possible indication that he and Petalo had met and wed.
They were likely married in February or early March, as Petalo's Facebook page, which was last updated on March 28, lists her as married and living in Syria.
Before abandoning her Facebook profile, Petalo posted a few images from her new home in Syria.
The tone of her posts indicate that, at the time, she was happy with her decision to come to Syria and marry a man she'd never met.
Yilmaz told the Sunday Times that Petalo "had contact with her family daily" during the time that she was married to him, and given that Petalo was using her Facebook account throughout March, this doesn't seem entirely unlikely.
However, Verbert said in September that the last communication she received from her daughter was a WhatsApp message in April that read, "Love that you are so worried. Sometimes you got to do what you got to do. This is what I think is right.”
Reports conflict on what exactly happened next. What is known is that Petalo and Yilmaz divorced after a very short marriage.
According to Yilmaz, it was an amicable split. "We both knew it wasn't going to work," Yilmaz told the Sunday Times. "I gave her her due ... and went on with my jihad." He says he even tried to send Petalo back to her family after their divorce, and she refused to leave Syria. "She said Islam forbids men to send their wives back once they have migrated," he said. "So I didn't send her back." He left Petalo with the wife of a friend and returned to the battlefield.
According to Turkish and Dutch media reports, Yilmaz abused his young bride and eventually abandoned her to a life of sexual slavery. "I believed Yilmaz. I gave everything for him," Petalo reportedly told a Turkish newspaper. "He used me like a slave and threw me away." In the Netherlands, reports circulated that Petalo had been sold to another fighter, or possibly a brothel.
Yilmaz said that a few months after the divorce, he inquired after his ex-wife and was told that Petalo had remarried and moved to Raqqah with her new Tunisian husband.
The divorce was finalized by July, according to an archived question on Yilmaz's now-suspended Ask.Fm page.
In September, using an account that has since been suspended, he announced that he had married again.
His new wife, he told one follower, was Azerbaijani.
Like many newly married people, Yilmaz even posted a photo of the ring.
In October, he even posted a photo of his wife, although he later deleted the image from his page.
So, contrary to some reports, the marital conversations Yilmaz recently relayed on Twitter were between himself and his new wife, not Petalo.
Back in Maastricht, Petalo's family was growing more and more anxious about her fate. In October, her sister, Esmerelda, posted this image on her Facebook page with the caption, "Missing my blue-eyed princess."
She also posted pictures of herself and her sister, including one snap of the two as children.
Verbert traveled to Turkey in October — around the same time as her daughter's 19th birthday — in the hopes of going into Syria and tracking down her daughter, but she failed to cross the border.
Verbert heard from her daughter for the first time in seven months when Petalo contacted her in November and asked her mother to help her come home.
Verbert, who described the message from her daughter as "a cry for help," went to the authorities and asked for their help in retrieving Petalo. Everyone, from police officials to the Dutch Foreign Affairs Ministry, discouraged Verbert from attempting another trip to Syria to bring her daughter home.
The anxious mother refused to listen and began to plan how she would bring her daughter home on her own. "Sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do," Verbert told The Telegraph. "She rang me and said, 'Take me home.' But she could not leave Raqqah without help."
After seemingly having been tipped off to Verbert's rescue plans, on Nov. 17 a Dutch journalist published an editorial directed at Yilmaz, asking where Petalo (using her adopted name Aicha) was and urging him to "return her" to her mother.
The article alleged that Yilmaz had lured Petalo — "a barely adult girl" — to Syria under false pretenses and treated her "like a slave" before "gifting" her to a Tunisian fellow soldier.
Yilmaz angrily defended himself on Twitter, denying that he had mistreated his ex-wife in any way.
On Nov. 17, clad in a heavy veil, Verbert arrived at the Syria-Turkey border and had an "emotional" reunion with her daughter.
Early reports suggested that Verbert had actually gone into Syria and retrieved her daughter from the city of Raqqah, but a Dutch official confirmed that the two women had met on the Turkish border. It is not yet known how Petalo traveled the approximately 60 miles from Raqqah to the border.
Because Petalo did not have a passport, the two women were detained at the border for nearly three days, during which time media outlets around the world began to report the story.
Prompting Yilmaz to tweet a comment.
Upon arrival in the Netherlands on Nov. 19, Petalo was immediately arrested and taken into police custody on suspicion of "crimes threatening state security." Two days later, a judge extended this detainment.
Petalo was given a "provisional release" on Nov. 25, on the understanding that she would adhere to certain specific conditions. Although the court declined to give the precise conditions for release, an official said the teenager should "not commit any crimes and adhere to any request by the police and justice officials." One of these conditions is to not speak to the press, due to "the sensitivity of the case."
The Dutch Public Broadcasting Organization reported Nov. 30 that Petalo and her family were in hiding and closely guarded, as the teenager was apparently receiving death threats.
Petalo could face up to 30 years in prison if she is found guilty of terrorism charges.
"We don’t know what she did over there, what her role was," Dutch public prosecutor Roger Bos said. “Is she a victim or a suspect? Maybe she’s both.”
Ellie Hall is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 6055 A264 DADD AADC 347E 5986 547C C11C DD7D 176A.
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